Care in Times of Crisis: How Faculty Are Managing COVID

Dec 2, 2020

Published in Conversations | Issue 3

Garrett Bridger Gilmore, University of Alabama 

Al Harahap, University of Oklahoma 

Jamila Kareem, University of Central Florida

Helen Sandoval, University of California, Merced

Moderated by Sonia Arellano and Lauren Brentnell

Download PDF Version


Lauren Brentnell: For the introduction to this conversation piece for constellations, we thought that we would have a conversation ourselves over Zoom. We know a lot of us have been doing a lot of Zoom conversations lately as faculty, whether or not you’re teaching online or just having to do a lot of meetings remotely, and we wanted to sort of mirror the discussion that our participants had. We wanted to chat through the things that we’re seeing as faculty and the things that we saw our conversation’s faculty discuss in this piece.

Sonia Arellano: So I’ll start with one of the prominent themes we saw in this discussion, which was about family. This was really interesting because I know we both identify with a lot of the things the participants said, Lauren. But it seemed as though most people were having experiences of family on one end of a spectrum or the other, kind of some extremes.

Some faculty were not able to see their family because their family live somewhere else. As is common with faculty, we live all over the place and move all over the place, and so COVID has restricted our travel to see family. Then additionally, even when we build chosen families in our locations right now, it’s hard to see them.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, a lot of people may be overwhelmed by their family care recently. People who have large families in their house and are doing a lot of care for their family were also struggling with that.

So what I found interesting is that whether people couldn’t see their family or they were overwhelmed with family, faculty felt very isolated. That’s definitely something that I have identified with not being able to see family and also not being able to see my scholarly community as well.

Lauren: I think what you mentioned about not getting to see our scholarly family resonates for me. I’m in the same position as you, not being able to see my actual family. I live far away from them. But not seeing the scholarly family has been very, very difficult, not feeling those connections anymore. That came up a few times. Losing this connection to going to conferences in person and being able to sit down over coffee with people and catch up or meet new people and hear ideas there. So those are the sorts of things that all of us are really feeling at this moment.

This is probably very similar to what you’re talking about, but one of the themes that I noticed a lot was this idea of performing professionalism and sort of two different aspects of that. One of them was very literally a discussion about the things that we put on. Like, if you’re putting on the collared shirt to do the Zoom meetings, the kinds of things we put on every day.

But then the second thing that I noticed people talking about was this idea of performing “okayness” and how we’re taking care of our mental states and trying to pretend everything is fine in this moment. And, you know, I think both of these things are very similar.

We’ve always had to perform professionalism even before COVID, so these conversations are not new. But one of the things I noticed is the way that the pandemic has heightened or changed a lot of those expectations, especially around the idea of performing “okayness.” All of these extra things that we’re having to do now to make sure that we are okay, and to make sure that our students are okay; checking in with them all the time, constantly, scaling back assignments, and creating many preps for students who are in quarantine and can’t come to class anymore.

So all of those small changes are really adding up over time for everybody. Those performances are taking even more of a toll on us.

Sonia: Absolutely. I was just laughing todaythis morning I was in a Zoom meeting and I was so hungry and it was like, “I don’t care if it’s unprofessional. I have to feed my body, you know?” And I think that there’s been a lot of interplay with our personal lives that normally we don’t take to the classroom. That is definitely influencing our decisions on how we’re performing professionalism.

And the idea of being okay right now? Forget it. When students ask me, how are you? I’m like, “let’s just move on. I’m smiling.”

Lauren: How are any of us right now?

Sonia: Exactly, exactly. So, yeah, you’re right that we have always had to perform professionalism. But there is more added to our plates right now.

One of the other things I noticed that goes hand-in-hand with what we’ve just mentioned about our academic family  has to do with research. I thought there were some interesting comments about research basically being put on the back burner.

Whether that is because, for example, parents are having to spend a lot of time with their kids at home and homeschool them, or people are dealing with other obligations, there is less time. You know, research is the thing that isn’t immediately necessary for everyone like teaching is. And so, some research is being pushed aside.

But not only because of time, also because of money, right? Schools are having to cut their budgets. Travel is being restricted. Conference travel was also talked about with conferences being cancelled, us not traveling to see our academic family, and also not growing in our research in those conversations since conferences really provide all those opportunities.

So that was something that stuck out to me as someone who has been struggling to complete my research. I think that’s a commonality. You know, whether it’s time, money, or travel or a combination of all of them, that is something that is falling to the wayside. As Al Harahap mentioned in the conversation, it’s sending a message that this is something that can fall to the wayside and that’s a real missed opportunity. I just agree with that.

Lauren: I completely agree with all of those things. I’m thinking about the research projects that I have completed and all of those were things that started pre-pandemic. So I had these obligations to complete them. There hasn’t been a lot that I’ve started since. Maybe a couple of small things, and even some of those were conversations that I’d already been having with people before everything started. But the idea of starting big new projects right now feels so overwhelming with everything. I definitely heard what everyone was saying there.

The last thing I noticed a lot were discussions of inequities. Which we know, of course,there were inequities that existed before the pandemic, and the pandemic has just exacerbated all of them. Al Harahap began this entire conversation by noting that we should be paying attention to those sorts of labor conditions in and around the pandemic, things like who gets to teach online, who has to work on campus, who has to still be on campus to clean and take care of residences, and those sorts of things. Those are really important questions and concerns that we should all have.

That’s also true, I think, of our students, considering which of our students have to be present on campus, which of our students have to take courses online during the semester, and gaps in access for students who have to take courses online.

I teach all online. Some of my students who have to take those classes have different levels of access, different levels of consistent Wi-Fi, whether or not they have quiet spaces to work consistently at home is a constant question for some of them. Those sorts of inequities are always there. Our faculty talked about that for themselves, but that’s certainly true of our students as well. So those sorts of questions always came up.

There were some conversations, too, that stood out to me about good things that have come about because of the pandemic, like more remote accessibility to conferences. But then, of course, there were worries about some of those things just being seen as temporary. That like, oh, we do that now because we have to, because we can’t get together in person. But when we can eventually in the future, are those things just going to fall away again? So there are still questions around that too which I think are important.

Sonia: These inequities that we have always seen and recognized are just even more so now. I completely agree.

So we thought that discussing these ideas that stuck out to us, these salient points of the conversation, would be a good starting point, a great introduction to thinking about how faculty are coping right now.

We both walked away completely agreeing with so many things that were said, or identifying with so many things that were said in this conversation. And even afterwards, some of the participants said, thank you, this was very cathartic, just to put it out there, just to write it down.

Hopefully our audience will read through and identify with something that was said here or see how we’re coping and maybe laugh at some of the jokes that were made here, because if humor can’t get us through this, I don’t know what will. Hopefully this kind of preface will be a good introduction to this conversation about how faculty are coping right now.

For this conversation, we are fortunate to have conversed with:

  • Garrett Bridger Gilmore, an instructor in the Departments of English and Gender and Race Studies at The University of Alabama.
  • Al Harahap, a lecturer in the Expository Writing Program at the University of Oklahoma.
  • Jamila Kareem, an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.
  • Helen Sandoval, a continuing lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced.
We are proud to share their views and experiences with you.
If you want to watch the introductory conversation between Sonia and Lauren, that is available for you here.
At a global level, we are all seeing our lives transformed in small and monumental ways by COVID-19. How has it affected your lives as faculty?

Al working with his dog napping on his lap

Al Harahap: As a sole immigrant to the US, I maintain family bonds through visits to or being visited by family in Asia and Australia. This has become a problem since 2017, and the Trump administration’s increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant policies, but the pandemic has definitely exacerbated it with border closures and related travel bans. Without that contact, as irregular as it may be, these conditions have affected my mental health and in turn my professional work.

More specifically as contingent faculty, the pandemic has revealed to me the academic caste system I’m a part of and my place in it. I’m on campus with students who want or feel that they need f2f (face-to-face) instruction, cleaning and custodial services, and residential staff. But the faculty and staff parking lots at the University of Oklahoma (OU) that are usually filled to the brim are now on any given day less than half occupied. So I have to wonder who has to teach or do their administrative work on campus and who gets the affordance of doing so online from home (or a nice beach in Cabo).

Helen Sandoval: Thanks for sharing, Al! This pandemic has greatly affected my life, especially as an academic mom. Not only has all of this taken a toll on my mental health, but the added stress of being a university professor, working from home, all while trying to care for my children has been challenging to say the least. I take on much more responsibility now than ever before. As a teacher of writing, I have often found myself bringing my work home with me. But now, I am home all the time having to navigate being a mother to my three boys (8, 3, and 4 months), and teaching. 

Àngel helping Helen with baby Diego

It was very stressful at first because I held myself to such high standards, as many of us do. Pre-COVID, I had a difficult time finding a balance between work and home life, but since we’ve been home, I’ve had to really work harder to be everything all at once—a good mother to my children, one of whom struggles at times with online schoolin, and another who wants so much of my attention that it’s difficult to focus on much else. All the while, I have consciously been working to maintain a sense of who I am as a university professor. A big part of my identity as a writing professor is to be there for my students, to be that support that they need at times of distress. At my university, which is an HSI (Hispanic Serving Institution), we have a very diverse student body, with a large Latinx population. Many of our students (and faculty) have been deeply affected by the Trump administration and its policies, as well as by the racial divide that is still prevalent across the nation. I have been working hard on anti-racist efforts in my writing program. I continue to do it because I care about this work, and I care so much about helping create a safe space for my students. Attempting to manage all of this has been stressful, but I’m doing my best to manage both the transition to online teaching and maintaining a sense of who I am as a student advocate, an advocate for racial and social justice and an intersectional feminist. 

Jamila M. Kareem: Overall, the most significant change has probably been my connection to my students. My life as a faculty member is so student-focused, because my research and scholarship is really centered on teaching and learning, and I think these relationships are important. Especially for students who are not only new to college but new to the online learning environments, I’ve found it difficult to create these connections like I would with being able to chat after class, or laugh at their jokes, or even correct their bigotry in person. Even though I was on intermittent medical leave prior to COVID and teaching online, the kinds of students who are taking online classes has changed, I think, because it’s students who may feel more comfortable in f2f courses, but are forced into online courses because of the current situation.

Like Al, I’ve noticed an impact on my mental health, because I’m constantly worried about some teaching “failures” that I likely would not have made under different conditions. I think the lack of class community creates a hierarchical assessor and assessed dynamic, which is, of course, less caring from the perspective of the student. 

As a faculty member of color and one of the only ones in my first-year writing program, I have often made long-term connections with my students of color, and the anonymity of the online teaching spaces makes this extremely difficult. Not to mention that COVID more significantly affects communities of color, so I fear that many of these students are dealing with the familial and social complications of the crisis in more critical ways than myself and some other students.

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: Helen, as a new parent (6 week old!) I have newfound awe at what you are having to go through to balance work and care for your kids. For me, I’ve been getting through the pandemic emotionally by really focusing on getting ready to be a father for the first time and trying to organize workers on our campus in response to the university’s COVID-19 policies. I think that, like Al pointed out, the hierarchies of labor on campuses have been really stark at my institution since the spring. And like Jamilia just said, the alienation I feel from class community thanks to Zoom-based instruction we’ve been forced into here has taken away most of the joy and consolation I usually feel in my teaching. All of these things together have left me, really just in the last few weeks, totally exhausted. I feel like I had all of this energy from my organizing going into the semester, but my students are ground down by the semester, the pandemic isn’t letting up. We’re heading towards more dangerous face-to-face instruction in the spring, and it feels at times like it’s too much to get through.

Helen Sandoval: Hi, Garrett! Congratulations on becoming a new parent! And thank you for sharing your experience—you really express so much of what I have felt the past few months. I am tired all the time to the point of exhaustion; but I force myself to keep going. As we are having this conversation, I can literally hear my four-month-old fighting sleep. I had to step away to comfort him as I was typing just now because he’s been teething for the past few weeks.

Now that it has been over six months since COVID-19 became prevalent in the US, many people are establishing new norms. How are you dealing with doing all the thingsworking, living, caregivingall in the same space? For example, how are you differentiating caregiving/living/working times and spaces? 

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: Is it too glib to say I put on a collared shirt when I need to teach? Sometimes that’s enough to differentiate—my wife and I have been working from home since March and we got into a routine over the summer that has been carrying on since then, but things for work have sprawled into all rooms and I have to fight myself to not check email sometimes. I have my class times blocked off and then I just try to get things done. I’ve always been a 9-5 kind of person, so I’ve kept that evening cutoff as much as possible, but it’s gotten harder with the baby, and I imagine those lines are probably going to deteriorate further. I’ve never been a particularly spatially organized person, so having the mental boundaries now has been really important. I got lucky with some research projects wrapping up over the summer and some service obligations lightening this semester, so that has helped so far. Things will get more complicated in the near future, though.

Jamila M. Kareem: Garrett, that isn’t glib at all! I tend to wear more formal dresses or skirts when I teach because that’s my preferred “uniform.” Mainly, I take actions like closing my work laptop when I’m taking breaks or socializing with family or just relaxing with reading or TV. It helps me define my time. Whereas before the COVID crisis teaching era I was much more fluid with my time and schedule, I really try to stick to specific work and leisure times now, and I let people in my life know about this. I stop checking my emails at designated times, I communicate with loved ones when I have meetings with colleagues or impromptu appointments with students. 

Al Harahap: Jamila, I make the spatial distinctions too, so I (try to) move from my home office space to my living room at 6pm every day—though my laptop, like my dogs, seems to have the habit of following me there. And like Garrett, I make sure to differentiate “pro” time with “casual” time through dress to teach students or Zoom with colleagues. Specifically when teaching, though, I have made a conscious decision to mix up the “prof-ish” dress with some slacks and t-shirts now and then and with costumes other times. This came about after reading all the news about the policing of bodies (disproportionately Black and Brown) of students online in pajamas and nursing mothers. I want to visually convey to students that it’s okay to let their guard down a bit because these are unusual and trying times.

From top left clockwise: Al teaching in Anonymous mask and handmaid outfit to teach about resistance movements, as RBG to teach judicial/legal public discourse, and as BP to talk about the afrofuturist imagination.

But to be honest, this part of my life and work hasn’t changed that much for myself. As an independent, uncoupled, unmarried scholar, I’ve always had to negotiate various personal and professional parts of my life from even before the pandemic. Modern US society is constructed around couples and nuclear families. I can’t buy a loaf of bread that won’t go bad before I can finish it—unless I have sandwiches for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—because everything is packaged for the Bradys, Cleavers, and Keatons of America. So as a single parent, I’ve always had to do things like come back for my lunch hour to let the girls out to tinkle or spend a couple of hundred dollars at the local dog-boarding when I have to go off to conferences.

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: Al, this point about the politics of appearance is so important and makes me think back to the implicit dress codes on campus from the before-times. How Greek-affiliated white students dress very, let’s say “comfortably” for class, but my Black students typically don’t. I know there have been horror stories about professors getting angry at their students’ dress and surroundings on Zoom, but I take it as a positive sign when a student feels comfortable talking with me and the class in a space they are comfortable in. I love hearing students’ families and kids in the background—it helps me keep sight of the fact that my classes are part of something bigger, which I think makes me more generous to my students and makes me feel better about silences, awkward moments in class, and the like. Things are messy. The face-to-face classroom kind of obscures that and I’m grateful to have the curtain pulled back. I think—I hope—it makes everyone more generous to their students in the future.

Helen Sandoval: As mentioned previously, I have found it difficult to find balance during this time. It has been one of the most stressful times in my life, so I can only imagine what my students must be going through, which is why I do my best to give myself (and my students) grace when I can. I try to remember that it is important to take breaks, to separate myself from my work and my kids when I can, as difficult as it may be. My husband has been home. He lost his job earlier in the year, which has added to the stress. But one benefit is that he is able to help out with the kids. So when I need to focus, I lock myself away in my room, put on my headphones, and get to work. That is, until my baby needs to eat. Earlier in the semester, I had a minor breakdown due to all the stress—the panic set in and I just began to cry because it was all too much (being a mother to my children, being a good teacher, colleague, and activist for equity, diversity, and inclusion in my writing program).

I reached out to some friends who reassured me that I am doing my best, and it’s okay to take some time for myself. That’s when I realized I don’t need to be everything all at once. I am doing my best and that’s what matters. When my kids are older, I’m sure they will remember this as a time when we were all together as a family. 

Al Harahap: Great reminder, Helen, about not giving into the pressures to be multiple things all at once. And I think it ties in with what Garrett is saying about how connected our physical and mental spaces can be, especially as for many of us they both shrink during the pandemic.

I also switch up my workspaces, which might go against what I just stated. While I appreciate the designated spaces, I need variety in my mental processing, particularly when it comes to research duties like writing or data analysis. I’m not a caregiver at the moment, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to designate that space as some of the others here have had to do. As Garrett states, a lot of the spatial orientation is mental more than physical.

Many universities are making changes frequently. How are you ethically negotiating the changes your university imposes while also managing its expectations?

Diego Taking a Selfie While Helen Works in the Background

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: I know the most frustrating thing as a worker at my university has been communication; nobody knows anything about what is going on. I try to shield my students from that by being as transparent as possible about what I know when I know it. We’ve had indecision about pass-fail options and requirements for attendance at various points this semester. At the start of the term I radically revised my grading policies in my literature surveys to make the assignments more manageable and the math more understandable. In my writing classes, I’ve switched to a labor-contract grading system that has reassured my students that doing the work is all they need to do to be successful. I’ve found myself cutting out the things that normally create points in a semester (quizzes, in-class assignments), because I realized I was using those things mostly to compel attendance. I’ve tried to be very upfront with students about what “the work” of the class is because I think in the humanities sometimes that isn’t clear to students. “The work” is reading, thinking, and writing. If you are doing those things, then I can talk to you about them. And if we’re talking about them, then hopefully there is learning going on. 

Helen Sandoval: Similar to you, Garrett, I’ve also found myself cutting out certain assignments that I may have otherwise required in a face to face class (pre-COVID). I am teaching asynchronously, and I find that I am going at a much slower pace. Luckily, Admin in my writing program left it up to us, as faculty, to decide how to approach teaching our classes. I have found so many benefits to teaching asynchronously. At first I was hesitant about going this route, but I have been doing my best to provide the resources necessary for my students to be successful in the class. And I am always online monitoring participation and engagement. Like any other class, I am scaffolding assignments and adjusting the schedule based on how it is going. Because I am actively maintaining a presence in my online class, I am very aware of how my students are doing. And I am consciously making an effort to be understanding with assignment deadlines, especially when I see that more than a few students have not submitted something or have not posted to the online discussion board by the “due date”.

Garrett masked up on the first day of instruction in August

Al Harahap: The pedagogical tweaks Garrett and Helen are testifying resonate with me a lot. I’ve scaled back my readings and assignments, not through some institutional mandate, but following some ethereal consensus in the academic social media world that being empathetic means doing this, which I, of course, agree with. What it has forced me to do, constructively, is really distill the content of my courses to what is essential and finding more efficient—sometimes multimodal, sometimes asynchronous—ways of getting to that essence. What’s really difficult and time-consuming is working with the rotating handful of isolating or quarantining students who can’t come to class, which is almost like another prep, or rather, because they’re different students at different stages, a handful of mini preps I have to multitask. And I’m sure it’s also difficult for students themselves who are having to shift between modes of instruction.

So it has become a lot more performative for me than pre-pandemic teaching. What I mean by that is, I’m having to figure out on the move how things are working and not working, rejigging our class schedule often, depending on the mode of the day (in class, outdoors, or on Zoom). If there’s an unusual number of students suddenly in isolation or quarantine, we fall behind, but I have to perform that everything is okay and going smoothly for both students and administrators when I’m not sure that’s the case.

In terms of research, I think we collectively, academia as an institution, blew a great opportunity. With teaching, we all (at least in the US) insisted on continuing the remainder of our spring and now our new fall terms online. We didn’t just cancel teaching. When we cancelled all our academic conferences without insisting on the same online persistence, we sent the message to non-academic-background administrators that our intellectual exchange (and funding for it) isn’t as important as the more materially and immediately profitable teaching. In the pragmatic eyes of administration, it can be interpreted as a confession of what’s more or less valuable to the institution. We should’ve fought to keep conferences going online, be it in synchronous Zoom or other forms, or asynchronous online forums however messy it would’ve been, because that’s what we did with teaching anyway. And now the “currency” or “stock” of research has been compromised even more compared to the (perceived) practical, capitalist, utilitarian urgencies of teaching. In the letters community, it’ll be interesting to see this month’s (November 2020) virtual NCTE conference as a litmus test that the rest of us can learn from.

I also want to acknowledge here that our Disability Studies colleagues and less-funded contingent faculty colleagues, disproportionately of various marginalized groups, have been fighting for real-time remote accessibility to conferences for a long time, and that it took a global pandemic that affects the mainstream scholar for us to start working on its feasibility seriously.

Helen Sandoval: Al, I completely agree with your argument about “Disability Studies colleagues and contingent faculty colleagues” and “marginalized groups” who have been fighting for accessibility at conferences. It is ridiculous that it has taken a pandemic for academia to come to this access and inclusion place of understanding. My fear, along with many others, is that this may all change post-COVID. 

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: Al, this idea of yours of “performing how everything is ok” is so accurate. It’s so coerced with the threats of enrollment decreases and job losses hanging over both the face we present to students and the fuss you can or can’t raise to management. 

Jamila M. Kareem: Honestly, I haven’t felt that affected by the changes my university has made. As I mentioned previously, I have been on intermittent medical leave since prior to COVID, so a lot of the stipulations such as scheduling campus visits with the department assistants, revising courses for web delivery, attending meetings virtually—I was already accustomed to. The biggest changes, as I’ve stated, have been in my teaching and communicating with students early and often, much more so than I probably did before.

Now, considering Garrett’s response, I probably do get more frustrated with the amount of emails informing us of the changes from the university. I do understand that these are necessary, but does anyone else have e-mail fatigue? I honestly dread checking it some days. But I do and it’s fine, I guess. Similarly, I used to look forward to communicating with students, and I still do overall, but I think their frustrations come out in emails to faculty, and so many of the questions are related to logistical matters that are outlined in notes, videos, assignment prompts, emails, and announcements, but they are not acclimated to the amount of additional reading that is required in, like Garrett says, a college-level humanities course that is now web-based. I’m sure my students have just as much e-mail fatigue.

Yes, Helen, adjusting assignments as I go! This is definitely something I was less willing to do as often prior to COVID, but it has become essential, especially for first-year students. I hope that students get the sense that we are almost struggling together, which is in contradiction to the ethos of the authoritative all-knowing professor. 

Since many faculty are now working from home or limiting engagement with colleagues, we are experiencing a loss of work community. Now we are often in Zoom meetings and out of the face-to-face work environment. How has this shift changed your relationships with your colleagues or affected how you negotiate relationships? 

Jamila’s family gathers on Zoom for Thanksgiving 2020

Jamila M. Kareem: I’ve become much more conscious of when engaging with colleagues—”Oh, I haven’t spoken to so-and-so for three weeks …  and you used to see them every other day.” Being a true introvert among many other introverts, I think this was fine at first, or at least I was okay with it. But, I don’t know about anyone else, I kind of miss walking by someone’s office, hearing something off the wall or insightful, and that making my day. It’s the little things like that which Zoom meetings just can’t capture. Now, I’m more aware of setting up time to just check in and chat with people I may not have done that with before, because we would have run into each other. That said, I’m still really bad at this, and it’s probably something else that weighs on my mental health. After communicating electronically all day and going to Zoom meetings and the like, oftentimes I don’t want to reach out to one more person through online communication. Part of me is hoping for a return of phone calls as a primary form of communication among friends and associates.

That stated, I’m much more conscious of how I come across in electronic communications because that sense of community has changed. I think that many of us have become less formal in e-mail because of the needed flexibility in that primary community-building genre at this time.

Garrett Bridger Gilmore: Yes, Jamila! Phone calls should be more of a thing from here on out! The element of faculty community is probably the hardest part for me. I used to work in an office I shared with seven other instructors, and while that was annoying when you had to do something like meet with a student or try to get writing done, I’m realizing it was really important for my mental health. It’s been difficult to reproduce this. I’ve noticed our department’s listserv is a little more active than normal, and I’ve started following more colleagues on Twitter than I did before. I am pretty new to the profession, and I have a lot of fellow instructors who have been at it for much longer than I have. I’ve felt a real loss of opportunities to learn from them in our day-to-day conversations in the office or at department events. We’re still in contact, obviously, but I miss picking their brains and bouncing ideas off of them on the fly. I miss learning. It’s hard being all cooped up in my house like this! 

Helen Sandoval: Overall, there has been a sense of isolation. I definitely miss seeing colleagues face to face. I am an affectionate person, so I also miss giving hugs to those colleagues who I consider close friends. Jamila and Garret—I love your comments about returning to the use of phones to have actual conversations again. Pre-COVID, I never spoke to colleagues or friends on the phone. In recent months, I have spoken to a few of my close colleagues on the phone. This was especially helpful when I was experiencing greater stress, when I felt like I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. It felt different to talk to people on the phone, but in a good way. I felt closer to them than I had in a while.

A screenshot of Helens’s tweet about life as a mom working from home during COVID-19


Al Harahap: Jamila, as a fellow introvert, I also feel this awkward tension between wanting/not wanting to interact with others. Am I really a cat? Ironically, having the forced f2f teaching with students energizes me on those teaching days full of human interaction (as less safe as they are).

But in terms of the academic community, I didn’t just lose my work community. Being in the US—on my own with no immediate family—academic conferences have been my support system. I’ve also been in my Rhetoric, Composition, and Writing Studies community since I was an undergrad, so I feel like I “grew up” with all these people that have become welcome familiar faces. Conferences for me are like this weird hybrid of work during the daytime and family/high school reunion in the evenings. I go to three-to-four a year for this purpose, even if I’m not necessarily presenting. It has been difficult not to meet and have direct interactions with my fam-friend-colleagues in person.

Jamila M. Kareem: Al, I miss conference meetups as well. It’s been very isolating to not connect with our long-distance communities, particularly when we are in careers that will be perpetually long-distant.

Helen Sandoval: Al and Jamila, I miss conferences too! I miss those days of catching up with fellow academics and friends who I only get to see in these spaces. The academic conference provides a space for community, a space where we feel connected to others who share our values. We need that so much right now, but in the meantime, we will have to settle for online supportive communities. 

About the Authors

Garrett Bridger Gilmore is an instructor in the English and Gender and Race Studies Departments at the University of Alabama. His research focuses on whiteness and post-slavery subjectivity in American literature. His work appears or is forthcoming in Mississippi Quarterly, Twentieth Century Literature, and the edited collection Reading Confederate Monuments. He serves on the steering committee of the United Campus Workers of Alabama and encourages workers across higher education, especially in the south, to join or organize unions on their campuses.

Al Harahap is a lecturer in the University of Oklahoma’s Expository Writing Program. His interests include using critical theory and cultural studies lenses in institutional critique generally, academia and WAC/WID/WC/WPA specifically, border/migration/nation rhetorics, and using equity and justice frameworks and approaches in all his research, service, and teaching. He is a Gen 1.5 immigrant, non-native English speaker, and single parent of two very good girl mixed terriers.

Jamila M. Kareem, Ph.D., is a teacher-researcher who studies critical race theory in composition studies. Her research examines the connections between race, discourse, writing, and pedagogy. She is a CCCC Scholar for the Dream, whose work has been published in Literacy in Composition Studies, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Journal of College Literacy and Learning, JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, and in the collections Diverse Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Writing Across the Curriculum: IWAC at 25 and The Good Life and the Greater Good in a Global Context. Her scholarship is forthcoming in the collection Mobility Work in Composition. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.

Helen Sandoval is a continuing lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced. She is the Book Review Editor at LiCS (Literacy in Composition Studies), and is on the Editorial Board of Latinx Writing and Rhetoric Studies. Her research interests include Intersectionality and Critical Race Theory (CRT), Feminist Rhetorics, Cultural Rhetorics, and Decolonization. She has presented her research at both regional and national conferences, including the UC Writing Conference, Young Rhetorician’s Conference, CCCC, and RSA. She is a current member of the Latinx Caucus of NCTE/CCCC. While her research and scholarly interests have evolved over time, her work has always represented a passion for helping all students, especially students of color, thrive in academia and in life. At CCCC 2017, as part of the Latinx Caucus workshop, she presented on border politics and the marginalized student experience on college campuses. And at CCCC 2019, her presentation at the Feminist Caucus Workshop, “Marginalized and Oppressed: Women of Color Challenging Dominant Narratives of the Past,” represented much of her current pedagogical practices—as a Chicana feminist, she focuses on centering the lived experiences of people of color in her writing classroom. 

About the Moderators

Sonia C. Arellano is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida. Her research focuses on textile projects that address social justice issues, particularly at the intersections of migration and death. Her current book project examines the tactile rhetoric of the Migrant Quilt Project, which uses quilts to memorialize migrant lives lost while crossing into the US. Her work can be found in Peitho: The Journal of the Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition and in Rhetorics Elsewhere and Otherwise: Alternative and Contested Modernities, Decolonial Visions.

Lauren Brentnell is an instructor of English at the University of Northern Colorado. They are a managing editor of constellations: a cultural rhetorics publishing space and the current secretary of the CCCC Queer Caucus. They have a PhD in Rhetoric and Writing from Michigan State University and their research focuses on incorporating trauma-informed, care-based practices into institutional contexts, including writing classrooms, programs, and centers. They are the author of several pieces on vulnerability in writing center work co-authored with Elise Dixon and Rachel Robinson, as well as “Living Oklahoma: A Memoir About Trauma and Rebuilding in Academia” in Pixelating the Self: Digital Feminist Memoirs. Their dissertation, “Responding to Sexual Violence Through Care-Based Practices in Writing Programs,” argues for the incorporation of trauma-informed work into writing program administration.

Production Credits

Copy Editors: Mitch Carr, Sonia Arellano, Lauren Brentnell, Alexandra Hidalgo

Editorial Assistant: Tina Puntasecca